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Religious Tolerance logo

Roman Catholicism and homosexuality

Homosexual orientation
among Roman Catholic priests

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Conflicting quotations:

The following diverse quotes were extracted from reviews of a book by Father Donald Cozzens, titled "The Changing Face of the Priesthood:"

bullet"It would be highly unlikely that a homosexual man in direct contradiction with God's law and even that of other faiths such as Judaism...would go through the steps of becoming a priest."

bullet"The presence of large numbers of homosexuals in the clergy is probable, although the 50% that Cozzens suggests seems far too high."
bullet"The real hope for the future rests on facing the challenges and issues squarely, and on taking an unblinking look at what threatens the integrity and mission of priests today."
bullet"...the most controversial areas Cozzens deals with are around the seeming increasing number of gay men in the priesthood and what that means for the gay priest, the straight priest, and the institution of the priesthood itself; and the painful reality of clergy sexual abuse of children and the unasked questions about its causes."
bullet"I confess to a certain anxiety as I begin this reflection on homosexuality and the priesthood. Whatever it said about such a sensitive and complex issue is open to misunderstanding and seeming insensitivity. Some will deny the reality that many observers see as changing the face of the priesthood that the percentage of homosexual priests and seminarians is significantly higher than society at large. Others will see any attention given to the phenomenon as a symptom of the homophobia that is characteristic of individuals with less than open minds. Still others will wonder what difference sexual orientation makes in the celibate lives of priests."
bullet"Sooner or later the issue will be faced more forthrightly than it has been in the closing days of the 20th century. The longer the delay, the greater the harm to the priesthood and to the Church." 1


A Vatican document of 1961 bars persons with homosexual orientation from ordination and religious vows. However, this document appears to have been almost completely ignored, at least in North America. 2

A new document was issued by the Vatican in late 2005 that places specific restrictions on the eligibility of candidates to Roman Catholic seminaries.

It is important to keep in mind that the vast majority of priests, with a heterosexual, homosexual or bisexual orientation, do not molest or sexually abuse young people. In fact, the percentage of pedophiles -- adults who molest young children -- among the Catholic priesthood appears to be lower than the average for all males. The percentage of abusive hebephile priests -- those who have a sexual preference for pubescent youths -- and ephebophile - those who have a sexual preference for older adolescents is much higher.

Some definitions:

We will most frequently use the rather awkward term "person with a homosexual orientation," in this essay to avoid confusion. Terms like "Gay" and "homosexual," are ambiguous.

  1. To many conservative Christians, homosexuality is interpreted in terms of behavior. A homosexual is any person who engages in same-sex behavior.
  2. To most others, including religious liberals, gays, lesbians, human sexuality researchers, and mental health therapists, homosexuality is interpreted in terms of sexual orientation. The term refers to a person who is attracted to persons of the same gender. A homosexual may choose to be celibate, or may be sexually active.

We will use the second definition in this essay and throughout the rest of this website.

What percentage of priests have a homosexual orientation?

Nobody knows, with any degree of accuracy.

Any discussion of the role of homosexual orientation in the priesthood -- in fact any discussion of clergy abuse itself -- is hampered by a lack of hard, reliable data.

Some estimates of the percentage of current priests with a homosexual orientation:

bulletAnalysis of the estimates of others:
bulletAccording to Amanda Ripley of Time Magazine, estimates range from 15% to 50%. 3

bulletAccording to Bill Blakemore of ABC News, "...nobody knows what percentage of the American priesthood is gay; estimates range from less than 10% to more than 30%." 4
bulletPersonal estimates:
bulletRichard Sipe, a psychotherapist and former priest, has studied celibacy, chastity, and sexuality in the priesthood for four decades. He has authored three books on the topic. He once estimated that 30% of the priesthood is homosexually oriented. 5 Elsewhere, he is quoted as estimating that between 25% and 45% of American priests are homosexual in orientation. 6 He told the Boston Globe:
"If they were to eliminate all those who were homosexually oriented, the number would be so staggering that it would be like an atomic bomb; it would do the same damage to the church's operation...It would mean the resignation of at least a third of the bishops of the world. And it's very much against the tradition of the church; many saints had a gay orientation, and many popes had gay orientations. Discriminating against orientation is not going to solve the problem."

bulletSister Maryanne Walsh, spokesperson for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, said that it would it be difficult to find evidence to support these Sipe's estimates of the percentage of gay men in the priesthood. She feels that it is also irrelevant. She said: "There's no real purpose in saying whether someone is homosexual or heterosexual. The issue is whether they can make a commitment [to chastity]." 6
bulletBishop Jerome Listecki is an auxiliary bishop in Chicago. He estimates that "perhaps more than 10%" of priests have a homosexual orientation." (Emphasis ours). 5
bulletFather Donald Cozzens, an author, psychologist, and Catholic seminary president says that there is such a high percentage of gay priests in the church that he is concerned that 'the priesthood is or is becoming a gay profession.' 5 In his book, "The Changing Face of the Priesthood," -- published in the year 2000 -- he estimates that 50% of Roman Catholic priests have a homosexual orientation.
bulletA NBC report on chastity and the clergy found that "anywhere from 23 percent to 58 percent" of the Catholic clergy have a homosexual orientation. 7
bulletAuthor and sociologist James G. Wolfe estimated that 48.5% of priests were gay. 8
bulletActual surveys:
bulletIn the Fall of 1999, the Kansas City Star sent a questionnaire to 3,000 priests in the U.S. 73% did not reply. The low response rate could be anticipated. One would expect homosexuals and bisexuals to be reluctant to respond to the questionnaire since it deals with such a sensitive issue, and originated from a newspaper. Homosexual and bisexual priests would probably be less likely to reply to the survey. Among the 801 priests who did reply:
bullet75% said they had a heterosexual orientation;
bullet15% homosexual;
bullet5% bisexual. 9
bulletDuring 1990, Rev. Thomas Crangle, a Franciscan priest in Passaic, N.J., mailed a survey to 500 randomly selected priests. Of the 398 responses,  about 45% said that they were gay. 10

Conclusion: If we assume that all of the estimates are of equal validity, then perhaps 33% of priests have a homosexual orientation -- about one in three.

However, as Father Donald Cozzens wrote:

"Beyond these estimates, of course, are priests who remain confused about their orientation and men who have so successfully denied their orientation, that in spite of predominately same-sex erotic fantasies, they insist that they are heterosexual." 11

Many define "homosexuality" in terms of actual same-sex behavior. They regard themselves as not homosexual because they have never acted on their fantasies, desire and orientation. To that might be added an unknown percentage of priests who have a bisexual orientation, and consider themselves neither homosexual or bisexual.

Same-sex marriage involving priests:

Father Karl Clemens, now approaching 70 years-of-age, had served in the Kingston ON, Canada diocese for 33 years. He moved to Toronto in the mid 1990s to advocate for that city's gay and lesbian community. He planed to marry his partner "Nick" on 2009-NOV-14. He believes that he will be the first Catholic priest to marry a man in Canada and perhaps in all of North America. He said:

"I'm not doing it to start a revolution, but if people want to exercise their right, and so forth, that's terrific. ... I'm leading the way -- or pioneering as it were -- in something that I think is very important. It's a human right. ... There will be Catholics who feel, because of their lack of understanding, that this is a very wrong thing and therefore will not be pleased. But those are consequences we have to be willing to deal with because we feel strongly about the issue at hand, which is the right to be able to enter into same-sex marriages."
Canada has had a gender-neutral marriage law that permits loving, committed same-sex couples to marry since mid-2005. 4

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What does the future hold?

A USA Today/Gallup poll taken during 2002-MAR found that:

bullet72% of Roman Catholics say the church leadership has done a bad job dealing with sexual abuse by priests,

bullet74% say that the church is more concerned with protecting its own image than with solving the problem. 13

The church leadership has a long way to go to regain the confidence of the laity.

If certain American trends continue -- namely:

bulletA steady loss of heterosexual priests who leave the priesthood to get married.
bullet A gradual reduction of the priesthood through retirement and death. (By the end of the year 2000,  "The average age of diocesan priests in active ministry in the United States is 59. For religious priests, it is 63.") 14 Another source gives the ages as 57 and 63 as of early 2003. 16 By 2011, the numbers might be about five years greater.
bulletThe massive drop in the number of seminary students (From 39,638 in 1966 to 4,826 in 1999.) One source says there are fewer than 4,000 in the year 2002.
bulletThe apparent increase in the percentage of seminary students with a homosexual orientation.

Then, as Father McBrien said: "the Catholic Church will run out of priests, [and] will certainly run out of heterosexual priests." 5

These trends may well continue:

bulletIn 2002-MAR, the chief spokesman for Pope John Paul II, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, told The New York Times that better psychological screening and upgraded training in church seminaries would do little to reduce the number of priests with a homosexual orientation. He appears to propose that homosexuals be refused ordination. He suggests that the church become:
"... less welcoming" of gays...People with these inclinations just cannot be ordained. That does not imply a final judgment on people with homosexuality. But you cannot be in this field." 15
bullet There is significant and growing support within the church for a general and complete overhaul of the church's understanding of sexuality in the areas of abortion, artificial contraception, divorce, gender roles, marriage eligibility, masturbation, pre-marital sex, sex education, sex in marriage, and sexual orientation. Support for change in these areas is resulting in increased demand among the People of God -- the Catholic laity -- for female ordination, and permission for priests to be allowed to marry. Both of the latter changes are probably needed to avoid the shortage of priests from reaching crisis levels. If there becomes an insufficient number of priests to supply the services that the laity expects of the church, then laity pressure may become extreme.

But most of the church leadership predicts no significant change in church teaching on human sexuality. Bishop Listecki has said:

"Two hundred, 300, 400 years from now, the Church's  teaching will be consistent as it is today because it's rooted in sacred Scripture and it's rooted in the authentic magisterium, which reflect upon the natural law. It's not going to change. It won't change." 5

Associated essay:

bulletRoman Catholic seminary students with a homosexual orientation.
bulletExclusion of homosexuals from Catholic seminaries

References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Unfortunately, we have lost the original citation for the book review. It no longer appears to be available online.
  2. "Careful Selection And Training Of Candidates For The States Of Perfection And Sacred Orders: (S. C. Rel., 2 Feb., 1961)." Online at:
  3. Amanda Ripley, interviewed on CNN, 2002-MAY-13.
  4. Bill Blakemore, "Crisis in the Church: Is celibacy to blame?," ABC News, at:
  5. "Gay Priests," Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, 2002-MAY-10, at:
  6. Barbara Walters, "Priests with AIDS: Crisis within [sic] Catholic church," 20/20, at:
  7. Timothy Unsworth, "The Last Priests in America," Crossroad, (1991), Page 248. Cited in Father Donald Cozzens, "The Changing Face of the Priesthood: A reflection on the priest's crisis of soul," Liturgical Press, (2000), Page 99.
  8. James G. Wolf, "Gay Priests," Harper and Row, 1989, Pages 59-60. Cited in Father Donald Cozzens, "The Changing Face of the Priesthood: A reflection on the priest's crisis of soul," Liturgical Press, (2000), Page 99.
  9. "Report: Priests hit hard by hidden AIDS epidemic," Associated Press, 2000-JAN-31, at:
  10. Judy L. Thomas, "Catholic priests are dying of AIDS, often in silence," Kansas City Star, 2000-JAN-29, at:
  11. Father Donald Cozzens, "The Changing Face of the Priesthood: A reflection on the priest's crisis of soul," Liturgical Press, (2000), Page 99.
  12. John Vennari, "Found: 1961 Vatican Document Barring Homosexuals from Ordination and Religious Vows," 2002-MAY-28, at:
  13. "Meet the Press transcript," 2002-MAR-31, at:
  14. Russell Shaw, "The priest's confused identity," at:
  15. "Vatican threatens gay purge of priesthood," The Data Lounge, 2002-MAR-6, at:
  16. "Survey Says," Boston College magazine, 2003-Spring, at:
  17. Bryn Weese, "Catholic priest will be first to marry same-sex partner," Kingston Whig Standard, 2009-NOV-12, Page 9.

Books in print about the Roman Catholic priesthood:

bullet Sara Bletchner, "View from the Altar: An Insider's Look at the Changing Catholic Priesthood," Crossroad General Interest, (2004). Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store

bullet Sara Butler, "The Catholic Priesthood and Women: A Guide to the Teaching of the Church," Hillenbrand Books, (2007). Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store

bulletFather Donald Cozzens, "The Changing Face of the Priesthood: A reflection on the priest's crisis of soul," Liturgical Press, (2000). Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store

bulletAvery Dulles, S.J., "The Priestly Office A theological reflection," Paulist Press, (1997). Read reviews or order this book

bulletJeannie Gramick, et al., "Homosexuality in the Priesthood and the Religious Life," Crossroad/Herfer & Herder, (1989). Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store

bulletPhilip Jenkins, "Pedophiles and Priests: Anatomy of a contemporary crisis," Oxford University Press, (2001). Read reviews or order this book

bulletEugene Kennedy, "The Unhealed Wound: The Church and Human Sexuality," St. Martin's Press, (2001). Read reviews or order this book This book deals with a broad range of sexual topics within the Catholic Church.

bulletMichael Rose, "Goodbye! Good Men: How Catholic Seminaries Turned Away Two Generations of Vocations From the Priesthood," Aquinas Publishing, (2002). Read reviews or order this book

bullet George Wilson, "Clericalism: The Death of Priesthood ," Liturgical Press , (2008). Read reviews or order this book

Site navigation:

 Home page > World religions > Christian groups > Catholic Church > Sex > here

 or Home page > Religious Info. > Basic info > Sex abuse > here

or Home page > Religious violence > Sex abuse > here

 or Home page > Conflict > Homosexuality > > Religious impact > here

Copyright © 2002 to 2011 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2002-MAY-14
Latest update: 2011-MAR-01
Author: B.A. Robinson

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